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Degrees and Graduation - Issue Briefs - Publication Number: IB98-2 (June 17, 1998)

Graduation Rates:
Why Variations Exist Between Reporting Sources

A surprising number of seemingly simple questions about higher education are often very hard to answer simply. One of those is, "What is your institution's graduation rate?"

 

Columbia(P&B)--This Issue Brief is designed to raise some of the issues to explain why published graduation rates vary from one reporting source to another and to encourage the user to recognize the impact of methodology on reported rates.
A good starting point is the classic interpretation most clearly applicable to traditional, residential liberal arts institutions. The classic definition is that graduation rate is the percentage of first-time freshmen who began college in a fall term who graduated from the same institution at the end of the spring term four years later. If 100 students began as new freshmen in the fall of 1994 and 75 walked across the stage to receive diplomas in the spring of 1998, then the graduation rate was 75%. This is probably the methodology that most readers assume is being used when graduation rates are reported. It just does not happen to be the methodology that most analysts are using because it does not fit modern higher education.

This report should help the reader become a better consumer of graduation rate information. It will not assert a single methodology as universally best because methodology reflects the analyst's effort to produce the most informative results, and able analysts can differ about which methodology is best for which purpose. However, when the analyst finally reaches the point of performing the computation of a graduation rate, it is a simple matter of dividing the number of completing students by the number of beginning students. The challenge is in determining which students are a part of each figure. For more information regarding the issues, please use the "Links to Supporting Topics".

 

Links to Supporting Topics
What is the University of Missouri's graduation rate?

Four 6-year graduation rates will be discussed. Three are reported publicly: CBHE, GRS, and Executive Data Reference. A fourth rate was created to serve as a comparative standard for this Issue Brief.
The CBHE rate is the rate computed by the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education from the statewide Missouri student achievement study records. It is limited to first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen. Because the record system is statewide, the CBHE can report the percentage of students who transferred out and subsequently graduated from another institution in Missouri.

The Graduation Rate Survey (GRS) is a new federal IPEDS report designed to meet the requirements of "Student Right to Know" legislation. As such, the information provided is by sex and race, and can be used to compute graduation rates for athletes. It is unclear exactly which of the several possible rates that can be computed from the report will be the standard rate routinely published in places like the Chronicle of Higher Education. The data available support rates from 4 to 6 years and might or might not include transfers. Among the options, reporters will probably use the 6-year internal graduation rate or a rate that combines graduate and transfer rates. Unfortunately, the transfer information merely identifies students that transferred out. It does not identify subsequent success.

Even with its limitations, the GRS represents an important step forward as there is near universal participation in IPEDS reporting, and the rates can be linked to the wealth of other information available regarding higher education institutions. The report is prepared by all higher education institutions and is limited to first-time, full-time, degree-seeking freshmen.

The rate currently reported in the Executive Data Reference includes full- and part-time students and does not consider transfers. The reported rate is slightly lower than a rate that is limited to full-time students.

The comparative standard rates created for this Issue Brief were computed to demonstrate the effect of varying intervals from 4 to 8 years for full- and part-time students. It is reasonably clear that little is gained by extending from 6 to 8 years, but that it is important to use a 6-year interval instead of a 4-year interval.

The following table shows each of these graduation rates for the University of Missouri campuses. Collectively, these percentages illustrate the importance of stipulating graduation interval, cohort class and attendance characteristics, and transfer behavior. They also reflect the consequences of different campus missions and service regions.

 
CBHE
Graduation Rate Survey (GRS)
Executive Data Reference
Comparative Standard for This Issue Brief
UM-Columbia
Most recent cohort
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1989
Overall Rate
57%
58%
Full-time
56%
57%
58%
Part-time
32%
% Transfers
18%
% Transferred & Graduated
7%
% Still Enrolled
1%
UM-Kansas City
Most recent cohort
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1989
Overall Rate
37%
40%
Full-time
36%
36%
42%
Part-time
15%
% Transfers
25%
% Transferred & Graduated
9%
% Still Enrolled
8%
UM-Rolla
Most recent cohort
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1989
Overall Rate
51%
51%
Full-time
51%
52%
52%
Part-time
4%
% Transfers
23%
% Transferred & Graduated
8%
% Still Enrolled
4%
UM-St. Louis
Most recent cohort
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1991
Fall, 1989
Overall Rate
31%
29%
Full-time
33%
34%
33%
Part-time
5%
% Transfers
28%
% Transferred & Graduated
9%
% Still Enrolled
5%

CBHE is the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education.

IPEDS is the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

The Executive Data Reference is available online at the Analytical Studies Website.

Comparative Standard Graduation Rates from 4 to 8 Years for:

Reviewed 2013-07-17.